Pepco officials offer apologies to residents for 10-mile oil spill

Company, EPA say they lost control

April 13, 2000|By Joel McCord | Joel McCord,SUN STAFF

BENEDICT -- Officials of Potomac Electric Power Co. apologized to Southern Maryland residents yesterday for an 111,000-gallon oil spill at the company's Chalk Point plant that contaminates parts of a 10-mile stretch of the Patuxent River.

Cleanup experts from Pepco and the federal Environmental Protection Agency said they lost control of Friday night's spill within the first 36 hours because of the weather and a chaotic cleanup response.

As a result, they said yesterday, crews failed to install floating booms that would have kept oil out of some vulnerable creeks downriver.

FOR THE RECORD - In Thursday's editions of The Sun, a speaker at the public meeting on the oil spill at a Prince George's County power plant was misidentified. The woman is Aileen Hutchins. The Sun regrets the error.

Several of those creeks are heavily tainted with oil, and workers continue to recover oiled birds, fish, muskrats and otters from the affected waters. The area is home to about 30,000 people, many of them long-distance commuters who settled here because of the beauty of the area.

In a letter hand-delivered to residents by Pepco employees yesterday and at a public meeting at the Benedict Volunteer Fire Department last night, officials apologized profusely for the acts of nature and human errors that created the mess.

"I have to tell you how profoundly sorry we are, and we will meet our responsibilities to stick with this [cleanup] until it's done," John Derrick, Pepco president and chief executive officer, told a crowd of nearly 500 that packed the fire department hall and spilled out into the driveway. "This river, and the people here, are special to us."

Derrick brought a platoon of Pepco claims agents with him to work with residents.

Also last night, Brad Campbell, the EPA administrator for the region, faulted Pepco's response to the spill. "We were dissatisfied with the personnel response in the first 24 hours," Campbell said. "We hold Pepco and its personnel accountable for that."

Elaine Hutchins, an 80-year-old widow who lives on the Patuxent, detailed her repeated attempts to reach Pepco and state environmental officials by phone this week and said she was not happy with their response.

"My own children came and got bales of straw to try to protect my marsh," she said. "I'm 80 years old, and I don't need this frustration."

Maryland's largest oil spill since 1993 began about 6 p.m. Friday night, when Pepco workers discovered a leak in a pipeline that carries fuel oil from a terminal at Piney Point to the Chalk Point plant. The leak at Swanson's Creek saturated about 45 acres of a delicate marsh.

EPA officials said Pepco workers followed an EPA-approved oil spill response plan, called in a cleanup contractor within 30 minutes and placed floating booms to contain the oil in Swanson's Creek.

A Saturday storm with winds of almost 30 mph and gusts of almost 50 mph blew the oil over the boom, and the spill began to spread.

"We thought we had it under control Saturday night," said Bill Sim, a Pepco supervisor at Chalk Point. "But once the oil escaped into the Patuxent, the number of workers jumped from about 50 to more than 400 in less than 36 hours, and supervisors lost control of the effort."

Over the weekend, Maryland's Departments of Natural Resources and the Environment called for protective booms to be placed across the mouths of several downstream creeks, where oil could play havoc with sensitive marshes.

Colby Stanton, the EPA coordinator on the scene, said that there were "five different [cleanup] contractors and not enough supervision," and she noted that two of the contractors have been fired.

"The contractors [have been] put on notice that if I hear another example of people not doing what I want, or of three people working while 15 others are standing around, they're gone," said Stanton.

She said that she gave orders to deploy the booms but that they were ignored by some of the contractors Pepco and the EPA had brought in.

One of the crews had a 1970s-era boom that was difficult to use and could not be deployed before darkness made the attempt unsafe, Stanton said.

The oil is scattered in thick patches along a 10-mile stretch of the river, from Eagle Harbor on the western bank of the Patuxent to Jack Bay in Calvert County, and into Trent Hall Creek in St. Mary's County.

Cleanup officials banned boating along that stretch of the river yesterday. Booms are in place along at least five creeks downstream from the spill.

DNR spokesman John Surrick said some of the blocked-off creeks are contaminated with oil, and workers have installed more booms to keep the pollution from moving further up the waterways.

About 200 of the 1,000 birds collected in the area have been tainted by the oil, according to DNR's preliminary assessment of wildlife damage. Mallards, ruddy ducks, swans and herons are among the 12 bird species affected, said DNR assistant secretary Carolyn V. Watson.

DNR has counted 17 dead mammals (mostly muskrats and otters), one dead bird and 10 dead fish. Those numbers are sure to climb because DNR workers have checked only the river shore, not the marshes where the contamination is the worst.

Sun staff writer Heather Dewar contributed to this article.

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